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New Beginnings, Old Worries: A Graduate Parent’s Thoughts at the Start of Academic Year

New Beginnings, Old Worries: A Graduate Parent’s Thoughts at the Start of Academic Year

Rebecca Sawyer

Second Language Acquisition, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Sawyer

The end of summer is closer than I would like to admit, despite temperatures still pushing me to either a pool or the air conditioning. This summer has felt strangely close to normal after over a year of masking, distance, and confinement to my small apartment, but the normalcy is undercut by a slowly growing feeling of apprehension for the start of the semester. I should be excited to return to in person classes, both those that I am taking as well as those I am teaching. Instead, my worry rises along with the surging cases brought by the Delta variant. In reading correspondence from my university along with news about the pandemic, it seems that our rush to normalcy is going to ultimately harm those who are the most vulnerable. For me and other student parents, that means our children.

Balancing Risks as Parents

Graduate student parents last year had to make the choice between the health of their children and the quality of their work. Some chose to send their children to care settings or to in-person school, while others chose to keep them at home. For parents of school-aged children, keeping them home also meant the decision to take on the nightmare of moderating online learning. Neither of these options were good, because it either meant risking our children’s health, or risking our ability to do our work well, if at all. However, this year the decision feels worse. For universities that are prioritizing a “normal” academic experience for the student body, the bulk of graduate assistant positions are no longer going to be remote. Keeping our children home is no longer an option, and we will also be in situations with a higher likelihood of exposure to the virus. Risk of infection is low among vaccinated individuals, but as a country we are still far below the vaccination levels needed to ensure the safety of those who are unable to get the vaccine yet. My personal risk of serious illness is low, but that is not the case for my child.

Financial Concerns Magnified by the Pandemic

The universities that are pushing for a return to normal without robust illness prevention strategies and flexible class modalities assume graduate students are young, single, and/or independently wealthy, and thus do not have to consider risks to anyone but their own person. What makes this sting even more is that the positions we are putting our children at risk for are deeply undervalued by universities across the nation. Annual stipends for graduate students vary wildly, from $13,000 up to $34,000, with the high end of that range amounting to only $15 an hour, or what is quickly becoming the suggested minimum wage. In many university towns, this does not amount to a living wage for an individual, let alone a family. On top of low wages, childcare costs are high nationwide, averaging a little over $8,000 per year with some states far exceeding that amount. The convenient, university-run lab schools are often some of the costliest, meaning that finding affordable childcare also means considerable headaches with transportation and scheduling coursework.

A Way Forward

Although I have not mentioned linguistics yet in this piece, this topic is highly relevant because it is exceedingly difficult to engage in creative, high-quality scholarship when facing economic barriers and additional stress. It is no secret that applied linguistics as a field is plagued by the same issues regarding retaining diverse voices as are all other disciplines in academia, and the challenges faced by parents are just one example of structural issues that won’t be solved just with new programs and initiatives. One of the most powerful ways that graduate students can enact change is by talking about and organizing around our living and working conditions, whether in the structure of an established union or less formally among graduate student cohorts and programs. If your institution has a union, any student (including international students of any visa type) can join a union and are protected from retaliation by doing so by the National Labor Relations Act. If your institution does not have a union, employees at Google have created a resource about how to get collective action off the ground.

Concluding Thoughts

This year, we have a right to do our work in a way that will not put ourselves and our families at risk for contracting a deadly virus. Our institutions have an obligation to ensure that we can make decisions regarding personal risk without fearing the loss of income or research opportunities. While hearing about surging cases feels grim, I feel hope in seeing how quickly businesses have raised wages to attract workers in traditionally low-paying jobs and how some companies are reevaluating the need to work in an office. I am also heartened to see more universities require masks, vaccinations, or both as a condition of being on campus. My hope as we start this semester is to take our collective frustrations and fears and turn it into the kind of action that will make our working and learning conditions safe and accessible during and beyond the pandemic.


Rebecca Sawyer is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research interests are informed by her years teaching high school Spanish to children from racially and economically marginalized backgrounds. She is particularly interested in the way varieties of Spanish are taught in the classroom, and how those varieties do or do not reflect the surrounding Spanish-speaking community, as well as how pedagogical practices can reify or challenge existing notions about what it means to be a Spanish speaker.

Recommended citation

Sawyer, R. (2021, August 26). New Beginnings, Old Worries: A Graduate Parent’s Thoughts at the Start of Academic Year. AAAL Graduate Student Council Blog.

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